Post-classical history

Lingua Franca

A vehicular language used along the Mediterranean shores, documented from the sixteenth century onward, perhaps genetically related to one of the various pidgins diffused in the Middle Ages among merchants and sailors. It has often been wrongly assumed that the term refers to a language that developed at the time of the crusades.

The ethnic term Frank, meaning “western European,” was widely used in the eastern Mediterranean regions among Byzantines, Arabs, Turks, and ultimately among the Franks themselves. Given the extremely scanty notions of western European society diffused in the Islamic world, the term lisān al-Faranj (or lisān al-Ifranj), “language of the Frank(s),” in Arabic sources may refer to French, Latin, or to any other western European language, and does not imply the existence of a special language common to all the Franks.

The linguistic situation of Outremer was characterized by the presence of many languages, whose distribution depended on different elements, such as ethnoreligious loyalties, social functions, and cultural prestige. Latin and French were the written languages of literature and administration. French was also the oral language of the feudal aristocracy that constituted the military and political elite. Some Italian dialects were spoken in the coastal cities, where commercial trade and sea journeys were organized by Venetians, Genoese, and Pisans. The indigenous populations spoke mainly Arabic, Armenian, and Greek; depending on their religious affiliation, they used Greek, Syriac, Armenian, or Arabic as written and liturgical languages.

Contemporary sources suggest that there were a few bilingual individuals, often oriental Christians, working in the lower ranks of the administration, or as interpreters in harbors, customs, and markets; but bilingualism was not a common condition. Multilingual situations, such as those that prevailed among ships’ crews, merchants’ caravans, or large armies, commonly favor the development of pidgins or other forms of contact languages. Such languages probably existed in Outremer, but they did not crystallize into any stable linguistic variety and did not leave any record of their existence.

Interlinguistic contacts in Outremer are reflected in loanwords: many words of Greek, Arabic, Persian, and Turkish origin entered medieval western European languages through Italian dialects, and less frequently through French. One ought to remember that this lexical corpus (particularly relevant in the areas of trade and navigation) does not constitute itself a language or an evidence of a Mediterranean trade language. It points, however, to the wide spread of Italian (often in reduced and simplified forms) that characterized Mediterranean commercial and diplomatic relations after the loss of Outremer, and provided the lexical and grammatical basis for the famous Lingua Franca of the Mediterranean.

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